Policy Fellows’ Challenges Are Large – So Are Their Goals

From left, Tyrell Kahan assigned to U.S. Agency for International Development, Christopher Williams assigned to the National Science Foundation and Nathan Moore assigned to the National Institutes of Health trade notes on break during the two-week training session for incoming class of 2016-17 AAAS S&T Policy Fellows. | Kat Song/AAAS

The 44th class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows began their tenure with optimism and hope that they can help solve some of the world’s biggest problems, despite warnings that the policy world is different from the one they just left.

“There are some significant differences between the scientific world view and the policy world view,” Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship program told the fellows on 1 September as their orientation began. “You’re looking for truth; policymakers are advancing public welfare,” she said. “You want to understand and explain things. They need to act and make quick decisions based on the best information they have.”

This year, the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow program will have 259 scientists and engineers with advanced degrees working in the executive, judicial or legislative branches of the federal government. They will contribute their knowledge and skills to those offices while learning about policymaking. Their orientation is a two-week crash course on everything from the structure, history, and budget process of the federal government, to the Washington, D.C. dress code, and how to network. The program has more than 3,300 alumni, including AAAS Chief Executive Officer Rush Holt.

Holt, who is also a physicist and a former member of Congress, recalled his own orientation for the current class. “I was sitting in your seat and one of the first speakers said, ‘You’ve got to understand that here in Washington, facts are negotiable.’” It made him think more about what it takes for society to agree something is a fact, he said.

From left, Melissa Duell assigned to the State Department and Helen Amos assigned to the Environmental Protection Agency look forward to bringing their scientific knowledge to the policy world for the next 12 months. | Kat Song/AAAS

Working with those who dispute facts scientists regard as settled, such as human-caused climate change, is a challenge that incoming fellow Sutyajeet Soneja considers the biggest he will face. But he’s also optimistic that he will be able to find ways to make progress. Soneja is a biomedical and biological engineer with a PhD in public health. He just completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Maryland, where he studied how the increase in extreme weather events due to climate change is affecting people’s health. “You need to figure out ways to make your case,” Soneja said. “People may not agree with you, but you can frame it differently” to find common ground.

As an executive branch fellow, Soneja will develop advanced metrics for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Global Development Lab to measure which projects and investments are effective. Soneja said he’s done similar work for the United Nations Foundation previously, but that it’s not uncommon for organizations to invest in projects without any evidence that a particular approach will work.

The S&T Policy Fellowships program recruits talented scientists and engineers from all walks of life, disciplines, career stages, and many parts of the world to Washington each fall. | Kat Song/AAAS

“It highlights where there’s a lack of the right skills sometimes,” he said, and knows it’s an area where he can help. He hopes that his experience will help him figure out what to focus on in the long term to best improve people’s lives. “I’ve worked in industry, in academia and for NGOs [non-governmental organizations], but I’ve never worked for government,” Soneja said. “It will be really interesting for me to gauge the level of bureaucracy and effectiveness relative to the other sectors.”

Taylor Winkleman, a congressional fellow from Santa Cruz with degrees in veterinary medicine and public health, has a similar goal for her fellowship. Before going to college, Winkleman spent six years in the Army learning Arabic and then working as a translator in Iraq. “I know how to stand in two worlds. I’d like to be more fluent in politics so I can explain science to politicians and politics to scientists,” she said.

Winkleman hopes to use her culture-bridging skills to also encourage more cross-disciplinary collaborations for working on big problems such as the “One Health Initiative” — policies that benefit people, animals and the environment. Ultimately, she would like to help tackle one of the biggest: creating world peace. “I think if we give people something to lose [like investments or a business]— that will help prevent war from happening. I advocate for agricultural and economic development for peace.”

Holt gave the new fellows one more challenge. “The appreciation of science seems to be eroding,” Holt said, and legislators have recently been turning more toward ideological answers than evidence-based ones. “If we can get [federal agencies] and people on Capitol Hill to think like scientists about public questions, so they can get the most reliable knowledge on public matters, we would be much better off. You can do a lot to turn this tide in the erosion in the appreciation of science.”